Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Tarzan of the Apes was the first of twenty-four Tarzan novels that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote over the course of three decades. Most of this introductory novel describes Tarzan’s upbringing in a tribe of African apes and his self-education in written English, but it ends by telling a little of his entry into the world of civilized humankind.
The novel begins with a storyteller’s disclaimer about having gotten the story from an unspecified man who had Colonial Office records to verify the tale. Burroughs then turns to third-person narration, first through the point of view of Tarzan’s father, then largely through that of Tarzan himself.
John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, boards a ship for British West Africa with Alice, his bride. He saves a burly sailor from the brutal captain. When the crew mutinies, the grateful sailor makes sure that the Englishman and his wife are not killed, but he abandons them in a wilderness harbor with all of their luggage and a few supplies. The site has a river mouth for water, and John and Alice gather and hunt to live well after their supplies run out. Although not a tradesman, John builds and furnishes a log cabin with a clever door latch for protection against wild beasts. Their son is born there. A year later, Alice dies, and Clayton is killed by an ape, Kerchak.
Among the attacking apes is Kala, a female whose own baby has died. Finding the now-orphaned, hairless white baby, she takes it...
(The entire section is 851 words.)
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One of Burroughs's chief strengths is his ability to create fictional worlds vastly different from, but parallel to, the real world. The contrast between the "civilized" world of humans and the "uncivilized" world of the jungle runs throughout the Tarzan series. Burroughs's detailed descriptions of language, social behavior, and cultural traditions make his fictional society believable. Throughout Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs juxtaposes images of the two worlds, as when Tarzan, rightful heir to the Greystoke title, "wiped his greasy fingers upon his naked thighs and took up the trail of Kulonga . . . ; while in far-off London another Lord Greystoke . . . sent back his chops to the club's chef because they were underdone."
An extended fable of evolution, Tarzan of the Apes chronicles its protagonist's rise to prominence in ape society as a result of his superior speed and reasoning power. Tarzan gains further advantage when he discovers weapons— ropes, his father's knife, and, finally, spears, bows, and arrows taken from a native village. He teaches himself to read and write from books found in his father's cabin, and begins to yearn for the life of humans, not apes. When the beautiful young Jane Porter is abandoned in the jungle, the ape-man at last sees his own race.
Later, Tarzan learns the ways of the world from a Frenchman, d'Arnot, whom he has saved. D'Arnot subsequently proves Tarzan's noble ancestry, but Tarzan refuses...
(The entire section is 251 words.)